86% of those surveyed said they would be more likely to shop at a store if the retailer responds to online reviews. 74% cited online reviews as “moderately important” or "very important."

Online reviews, such as those on Google.com and Yelp.com, provide a chance for retailers to engage in direct dialogue with their customers. But is engaging with online reviewers a good idea?

A survey commissioned by location marketing firm Uberall Inc. found 65% of consumers think retailers should respond to store reviews—good and bad—every time. Another 18% believe retailers should respond only to negative reviews, while 6% think they should respond only to positive reviews and 10% believe retailers should never respond to online reviews.

Uberall found consumers want those responses to be personalized, not merely generic messages written in advance. In Uberall’s survey, 78% of respondents said there should be at least some personalization in every review response. Among those, 49% said responses should be “somewhat personalized,” while 29% said “very personalized.” Just 13% said “not very personalized” and 9% said “not personalized.”

The survey questioned more than 1,000 U.S. consumers Oct. 1-5.

“People prefer businesses that care about them,” says Josha Benner, co-founder of Uberall. Companies that respond to reviews tend to get fewer negative ones, Benner says. But even more valuable is that reading reviews and engaging customers gives retailers important information about how local customers perceive their stores.

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However, responding to reviews can be risky, especially when the reviews are negative, he says. It is important to strike the right tone. “Training is absolutely essential,” Benner says, just as it would be for employees who deal with customers face-to-face.

Ideally, he says, local staffers—those who might even personally know the review writers—should respond to reviews. Among other things, he says, that helps avoid misunderstandings based on subtle cultural or linguistic differences across regions.

Uberall also recommends putting limits on which employees are allowed to respond to reviews and instituting a review process for review responses, rather than letting them go live right away.

When a review is really bad, Benner says, it’s often best to take the discussion offline by offering the customer an email address to use or toll-free number to call. In extreme cases, such as when customers make ad hominem attacks, not responding might be the best course, he says.

Benner says the survey results show responding to online reviews can help build goodwill between a retailer and its customers. Among respondents, 86% said they would be more likely to shop at a store if the retailer responds to online reviews (47% said “somewhat more likely,” and 39% said “more likely”). Only 8% of those surveyed responded with “somewhat less likely,” while 6% said “not likely.”

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The results also show that customers check online reviews and take them seriously. Asked how often they check online reviews, 57% said they do so occasionally, while 19% responded that they check online reviews “all the time.” 17% responded “rarely” and 7% said they check online reviews “very rarely.”

Of the respondents, 74% cited online reviews as “moderately important” (40%) or “very important” (34%). Another 20% called the reviews “slightly important,” and 6% said they were “not important” for helping them to decide where to shop.

If resources are tight, Benner says, retailers should respond to negative reviews first, because doing that can make the biggest impact and mitigate damage. Even if there is no staff time available for responding to reviews, he says, managers and owners should read them because doing so could teach them a lot about what’s good and bad about the kind of customer experience offered by the retailer.

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